Monday, June 4, 2012

Poetry Monday: Can Poetry Matter?

In his marvellous book Can Poetry Matter, Dana Gioia takes a pragmatic and very powerful perspective on whether poetry can continue to remain vital in the face of declining literacy levels, a humanities crisis in education where there is an increased  focus on job oriented study rather than the kind of 'general learning' that tends to happen in the arts, and on the ongoing trends for governments to reduce funding of the latter over the former.  Gioia argues that, even as the proliferation of new poetry books continues to grow within an academic environment, that poetry is becoming increasingly insular, and divorced from the general public - something of a "literary commodity intended less to be read than to be noted with approval." Though it was written some 20 years ago, Gioia's book becomes more relevant every year. The closing remarks are particularly valuable, recommending six suggestions for how to make poetry more relevant.  I've reprinted them below completely, courtesy of Graywolf Press, because I think they're spot on, and beautifully stated.  I'd also like to add to this list that poetry needs to be taught in primary schools, not just at high school level. Children should grow up with it and be comfortable with reading it.  I've done a little teaching at primary level and I find that children are often a little scared/wary of poetry and then pleasantly surprised when they enjoy it. Part of the enjoyment is point 5 - the performing of it.  Children love to perform and they love you to perform for them. Poets should consider sharing their work and the work of others (see point 1) as part and parcel of the poetry process. Circulez po├Ęte!

1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work — preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work.

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets must recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications. They must also avoid the jargon of contemporary academic criticism and write in a public idiom. Finally, poets must regain the reader's trust by candidly admitting what they don't like as well as promoting what they like. Professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism.

4. Poets who compile anthologies — or even reading lists — should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.

5. Poetry teachers, especially at the high-school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

6. Finally, poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could reestablish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience.

Copyright © 1992 by Dana Gioia. All rights reserved.

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